The first time I ever had to learn to pay a bill happened somewhere in my mid-30s. Learning and teaching for me were ideas. They were never very far from the bottom of any of my lists. And before I realized that I had a responsibility to others, I did what I could. I did what I needed and what I thought was best for me. Before then, I was homeless for a while, I was a prostitute, and a drug dealer, and I lip-synched to everyone from Barbra Streisand to Jerry Lewis. I'd go to the opening of a letter if the price was right. And during that time, during the times of feast or famine, I worked. I held down a job. I may not have been invited to the best parties at the best nightclubs, with the best people, but I worked. I liked being independent, and I liked feeling a tinge of responsibility. Even as a hooker.
Especially as a hooker.
And then I was diagnosed with AIDS. I was diagnosed in the mid-'80s, at a time when there was really nothing to be done except max out my credit cards and keep working. So that's what I did. And then the medications came, and I got work as an actor, and my union told me I had health insurance, and I kept working, and I was able to buy the meds, and I fell in love, and I got married, and I kept living, and I kept working. I had health insurance, and I had worked for years for that to happen to me.
I'm in school right now at California State University, working on getting my Master's degree in my one and only passion: my Art. It's a drug that's more powerful than any I've ever swallowed, snorted or shot up my arm. This has me, and it may be a while before I can gather enough TV hours to get my health insurance back.
Yesterday I went to CVS to pick up some antibiotics for this nasty cold I'm coming down with. When you have this disease and you catch a cold, it could very well be the last cold you ever get.
The woman with the white coat and long braided hair asked me my name.
"Billings," I said, sounding more like Elaine Stritch than Elaine Stritch.
"You have no insurance?" she asked, still frowning.
"OK. Do you know how much this medication costs?"
"I don't," I answered, shaking a little.
I stood there frozen for a moment.
"Does it come with strippers?"
I wrote a check and took careful hold of my very expensive, possibly life-saving drugs.
This is my life for a while until things change, and they will change, They always do. I'm married to a marvel of a woman and my best friend since 1978. I have friends who know how to handle my temper and my ego when it charges out of control. And I believe in something bigger than me that has a hand in this little path we've drawn out together. I'm OK.
I don't need sympathy.
I don't want sympathy.
I also don't need to turn on my TV and see my fellow Americans praising the idea that if someone is terminally ill and has no way to pay for treatment, then we should celebrate his demise. I don't need to see that when I am at the mercy of my own financial windfall. I make too much money for this thing, and not enough for that thing. But if this cold gets worse and continues, and I need hospital care, and I turn to the doctors and tell them that I have no health insurance, I don't need to hear someone in the back room of the ER applauding his decision to kick me out of the lobby.
I take full responsibility for my disease. I take full reasonability for my heroin use. I take full responsibility for the people I slept with, and I know how I got into this money landslide. And as I heal financially and spiritually, and as I pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars just to stay alive, I don't want to hear the people of my country cheer Republican politicians who tell me I should have thought about this earlier and that it's my own responsibility to think ahead. And according to most of this radical, dehumanizing Tea Party, and most of the players at the last Republican debate, I'm really on my own here.
If I die, I die.
I just need to be quiet about it and do it as quickly as possible. After all, people need jobs.
So for now, I'll do what I have to do, and I'll keep working and living and teaching and learning and trying to do my Art for anyone who'll receive it. I want, right now. I'm in a wanting mood right now, and quite simply, I don't have time to die. It's not on my schedule. And for my other fellow Americans who are ill with whatever it is they're ill with, and whose time, like mine, is limited, we have to shut out the noise of people on the right who aren't able right now to open their hearts wide enough to hear the call of mercy. We have to be loud in our dissention and clear in our outcome.
We cannot let the voices of the few outweigh the dreams of the many.
Everyone deserves to live a life that's full and rich, and everyone should take the hand of someone else as we all glide, kicking and screaming, toward the same ending of everyone's unique and gorgeous stories. If we don't, if we keep applauding death instead of celebrating life, what is it we're learning?
And more importantly, what is it we're teaching?